There’s an App for That: When Revenge Porn goes Viral

Content warning: mentions of revenge porn, sexual violence, domestic abuse, cyber bullying, child pornography and manipulation.

Revenge porn is one of the most prevalent issues facing young people today.

One in 10 Australians are victims of revenge porn, according to a recent RMIT University survey – that’s thousands of people within the ANU student body alone.

So why, if revenge porn is so prevalent, are our parliamentarians so unwilling to legislate on this pressing contemporary issue? Why are we not advocating on behalf of victims who are left voiceless by our justice system?

Politicians and mainstream media will happily dismiss revenge porn as a ‘digital phenomena’, and push it aside into the ‘too hard’ basket. We know, however, that revenge porn is so much more than this.

It represents a cross section between domestic abuse, sexual violence and cyber bullying, and predominantly affects women under 30, typically perpetrated by a male intimate partner. Further, it highlights the incompetence of our judicial and legislative systems to deal with such issues in a respectful and comprehensive manner.

Thanks to the growing prominence of photo sharing apps such Snapchat, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, revenge porn materials can be easily captured and disseminated within seconds.
Combine this with the anonymity of the internet, and the act can be far more damaging.

Some perpetrators will upload these images or videos onto revenge porn websites accompanied by the victim’s personal details. Once online, they are there forever, subjecting the victim to public perusal and ongoing harassment by men seeking sex.

One young Australian woman went public with her experiences as a victim of revenge porn after an image of her was doctored and placed on one of these sites attached with her phone number and home address.

The perpetrator also established a fake account posing as the victim and invited men to visit her home to rape and torture her. She was followed and harassed by sexual predators for months. Meanwhile, she was told by police that it was her fault and that nothing could be done to achieve justice.

Recent revelations regarding a child pornography ring that targets school girls further highlight the prevalence of this issue and the need for proactive legislation.

Investigations by the Australian Federal Police found that the websites featured thousands of sexualised photographs and videos of young girls from at least 70 Australian schools. While the AFP was successful in closing the site, it has since been re-established overseas thus making it virtually impossible for domestic law enforcement to take further action.

Cases like these highlight the complexity of the internet as a legal jurisdiction and the incapacity of our legislative and judicial systems to sufficiently act on cyber crimes such as revenge porn. Copyright issues further complicate the situation, which arise when these materials are captured on smartphone apps and then published online, making it difficult to have them removed.

The law is slowly catching up, however. Victoria and South Australia are the first Australian jurisdictions to take steps to criminalise revenge porn. The act now incurs up to two years imprisonment in both states or a $10,000 fine in South Australia. It’s also a crime in both states to threaten to distribute an intimate image without consent.

Similarly, there has been a recent push in the ACT to introduce laws which would see the act criminalised, indicating a positive, albeit gradual, shift toward achieving justice. The ACT Greens are supporting this push led Rhys Michie, an ANU graduate, whose online petition needs 500 signatures for the issue to be considered by the ACT Legislative Assembly.

Outside of these laws, federal telecommunications legislation criminalises the use of technology as a tool for harassment. However, significant gaps remain. For instance, they only address the capture and dissemination of these materials and ignore the copyright issues associated with publishing online or via apps.

Furthermore, these laws blatantly ignore the gendered nature of the act. They ignore that revenge porn is committed without consent mostly by men against women, that it is sexual abuse, and do not acknowledge the emotional and psychological distress which victims endure.

At present, a teenager who possesses and distributes revenge porn materials in NSW could face child pornography charges. If convicted, this means that they can potentially be placed on the sex offenders register and continue to face repercussions later in life. Here, the law completely misinterprets revenge porn and fails not address its fundamental aspects of consent, privacy and malicious intent.

The impact on minors must be actively considered in drafting revenge porn legislation because the status quo – where children face charges under the very legislation designed to protect them – is ridiculous.

While it is unlikely that revenge porn laws will act retrospectively to support present victims, it will provide them with the comfort that future victims may seek justice. It will send a strong, clear message to perpetrators that they cannot ignore consent and if they do, they will face retribution.

Regardless, revenge porn can no longer be brushed off as an online phenomenon, as elderly male legislators would have us believe.

We must acknowledge the impact that it has on victims, and we must break the cycle in which young men think they can harass women and subvert consent.

We must call out these boys club antics, and we must acknowledge the psychological trauma that revenge porn perpetrators inflict upon their victims. For, while revenge porn may seem like a gag to some, their suffering will undeniably last longer than the ten-second timer on a Snapchat.

If you need help or support, contact 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) or Lifeline (13 11 14).

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